Over the years The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah’s Preschool has established a reputation of being a “very loving, boutique-style preschool.” As the school nears its 45th anniversary, the Reform congregation’s board of trustees recently made a commitment to support the preschool and early childhood programming and hopes to grow its enrollment.
“It has a legacy of just such loving care, rich with Jewish values and Jewish teachings,” explained Sue Boxer, the school’s new director.
This year the school was led by Interim Director Laurie Greenfield, who reports 29 children are currently enrolled in the school. The preschool wing can hold more than twice that many students — 60 in the locked area and another 14 in an additional licensed room.
The first step to growing the school, according to Greenfield, was hiring a director who would commit to leading the school for the long term.
“We need to let people know that the commitment is there and the preschool is here to stay,” said Greenfield, noting that the congregation did just that when Boxer came on board April 1.
“A national search was done and Sue was what we discovered was our jewel. So we’re thrilled to have a woman of her caliber and her expertise with such a deep, deep background in synagogue-based early childhood programming here at B’nai Jehudah,” Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner said.
The board decided to make this commitment to the preschool, according to Board President Andrew Kaplan, after it commissioned a task force, chaired by Beth Liss, to study the issue.
“After much debate and thoughtful consideration, the board nearly unanimously passed a motion to commit to resources necessary to continue and grow our school into a program that will further develop a sense of Jewish community with the congregation as well as the general community,” he wrote in the congregation’s January Bulletin. “We clearly recognized the talent and passion of our teachers, the educational opportunities our children are receiving and the opportunity we have to grow a program that will be recognized and appreciated in the community.”
The task of growing the preschool’s enrollment won’t be easy. Rabbi Shuval-Weiner, who along with Greenfield helped lead the search committee that ultimately hired Boxer, said Jewish preschools in general are facing challenges they didn’t face 20 years ago. One such challenge for synagogue-based preschools is that the number of affiliated families — often the base of the student population — is shrinking radically.
Another challenge for synagogue-based preschools according to Rabbi Shuval-Weiner is the intermarriage rate “is also a bigger factor than ever.” In the not so distant past a synagogue-based program was “the first and foremost” place a young couple would have considered for their child’s early education. Now, she said, such a preschool is just one of the many options parents may choose from.
So one of the challenges Boxer will face as she begins to guide the preschool, Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said, is to determine “how we make ourselves relevant to a young couple who has many, many options for their young children.”
“Our children are our most treasured possessions and we want the best for them. So it is important for B’nai Jehudah to make ourselves relevant to them as an early childhood learning place, to make ourselves relevant as a place of values that are inherently important to parents,” Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said.
Boxer has a wealth of experience directing Jewish preschools, having directed such programs for the past 30 years. One of the things she has learned during that time is that it’s often the first set of doors that people walk into — the one parents choose as their children’s Jewish early education home — which in turn becomes the entire family’s Jewish home.
“We hope as Sue becomes known in the community as an expert in early childhood education, she will open her arms and our doors to people who are outside of B’nai Jehudah and they will consider us as an option for their youngest little ones,” Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said.
The rabbi said one appeal to parents, especially interfaith ones, is that B’nai Jehudah is the only Reform congregation in the area with an early childhood program.
“That may be a safer option for a lot of interfaith families,” than other synagogue-based programs, she said.
Boxer is already beginning to implement programs that have been successful in her previous position. She believes parent education is a very important component of a successful preschool.
“We often think of preschool as just the place to educate the child, and the model I have always felt is really important is that parenting is a journey we come into without a handbook. The need for that support system in that journey is something parents are very aware of,” Boxer said.
Boxer has already organized one parent program at B’nai Jehudah in which she shared some of her philosophy with participants through favorite quotes from Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., the author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children.”
“For me Judaism provides a legacy of teaching and ritual that has proven to be both profound and practical. You and your family may choose a different path than that of your forebears, but if you don’t want to get caught up in the anxiety, materialism and competition all around us, you must choose some path to walk on with your children. You must name it, follow it, and plan the curriculum for their spiritual education as thoughtfully and intelligently as you plan their academic education.”
While the preschool’s director has changed, it will retain the boutique-style it has become associated with. This is one reason why the school will never be as large as some other Jewish preschools in the area.
“This is a school for people who choose to have their child in a home-like atmosphere and not in a day care environment,” Boxer said.
The school is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Those limited hours, Boxer said, make it an unlikely choice for families where both parents work outside of the home full-time. Greenfield pointed out, however, that there are two-working parent families who have found ways to make this environment work for their children. Both Greenfield and Boxer said parents enjoy the school’s homelike atmosphere.
“Parents love that there’s a place that is not so big and overwhelming,” Boxer said.
She explained part of the attraction to a boutique-model preschool is that it becomes like a family.
“It’s a slightly larger, expanded family with shared values who share a commitment to making sure the children are safe and growing emotionally and cognitively,” Boxer said.
“Historically we’ve been known as this very sweet, loving type school. We don’t want to lose that,” Rabbi Shuval-Weiner added.
Boxer said the school has had “a really incredible team of teachers and committed parents and we want to certainly continue that legacy.”
No one expects the school to fill to capacity overnight.
“Certainly our goal next year is to bring in some more people and then to build on our success,” Boxer said. “The next year will be a step in that direction.”
Boxer also hopes to build the preschool’s summer camp as well. Space is still available for this summer’s session for 2- and 3-year-olds.
Rabbi Shuval-Weiner is excited for what the future brings to the preschool.
“We’re super excited for what the future holds for our program as well as well as for early childhood opportunities in the community at large. We have a lot, we believe, we can offer, we have offered in the past and hope to be able to offer again in the future.”